DIAMOND IN THE ROUGH

Lathrops on Central, 5202 North Central, Phoenix, 266-9555. Hours: Lunch, Monday through Saturday, 11 a.m. to 2:30 p.m.; Dinner, Monday through Thursday, 5:30 to 9 p.m., Friday and Saturday, 5:30 to 10 p.m. Even folks without big bucks can occasionally experience the luxuries that daily life ordinarily denies them. Park the old jalopy and rent a Corvette for the weekend; book a room in the middle of August and stay at a posh Valley resort; use your frequent-flier miles and stretch out in first class. Dinner at recently opened Lathrops can also fit into this program. You'll get your gastronomic thrills without setting off alarm bells at Mastercard headquarters. First, though, you have to get past the schizophrenic setting. Management clearly wants to establish an air of refinement. Beethoven hits your ears when you walk through the door. A tuxedoed host provides a greeting, then nestles you at a linen-draped table. But Lathrops still looks like the omelet parlor that once occupied this location. A long, central service area bisects the room, along with a jarring coffee-shop counter. The mixed signals confused me: I didn't know whether to ask for a wine list or my eggs over easy. There won't be much confusion, though, after a tour of the menu. The kitchen is headed by a woman who used to run the culinary arts program at Scottsdale Community College. The dishes show a lot of imagination. So do the prices--they're astonishingly low for this level of fare. Take the excellent shrimp appetizer, for example. A generous portion of eight firm crustaceans comes swimming in a deep puddle of aromatic, olive-oil-and-garlic-infused broth. The sharply seasoned bowl is good enough to pick up with both hands and slurp, as long as you steer your mouth around the ridiculous dinner roll inexplicably floating in it. Still, the shrimp dish was so good I could barely concentrate on its bargain price. The $3.50 tag is the same I usually pay for greasy, deep-fried zucchini strips. Another luscious possibility is the artichoke-and-mushroom puff pastry pie. And if the kitchen is offering the wild mushroom special, go for it. A hollowed-out baguette is stuffed with full-flavored fungi, and bathed in a just-right b‚chamel sauce. Main dishes, most in the $10-to-$15 range, offer excellent value and display an inventive, sure-handed culinary touch. If you want rabbit in this town, you usually have to hunt it yourself. And even if you do, Valley hares rarely have enough foresight to dip themselves in a pungent, mustard-and-roasted-garlic sauce just before you take aim. Lathrops, however, makes up for the creatures' instinctual deficiencies. The rabbit here is superb, extremely meaty. And the offbeat barley-nut pilaf and tasty spaghetti squash accompaniments are evidence that this kitchen cares about the details. It also knows what to do with fresh fish. The thresher shark is outstanding, a huge, moist slab, expertly grilled. It comes with one of the best side dishes I've had in town, an arresting combination of white beans and corn kernels scraped from the cob, blended with cream sauce and served in the husk. The leg-of-lamb special is just as fetching. It's a big, tender slice, temptingly stuffed with feta cheese, spinach and garlic, and set off with appealing creamed potatoes. Only the chicken tomatillo failed to arouse my interest. A less-than-zesty tomatillo sauce couldn't rescue strips of white-meat chicken from dullness. The corn bread alongside was a case of too little, too late. By this point, our dessert expectations had risen several notches. The house-baked sweets didn't let us down. When the waitress heard us bickering over the choices--Grand Marnier cake, wine-poached pears, apple tart, coconut torte, tiramisu and flourless chocolate cake--she offered to make us a sampler. A few minutes later, a prettily arranged platter with substantial tastes of everything was set down before us, highlighted with an artfully drizzled chocolate sauce spelling out "Lathrops." The pears, chocolate cake and coconut torte turned out to be the most satisfying options. Despite the well-conceived, deftly prepared fare, Lathrops still has some rough spots to smooth out. The place lacks polish. Our waitress was well-intentioned, but didn't know which appetizer was which, or who got what. The meal was oddly paced. It took forever to get a menu and place our order. Perhaps to make up for the slow start, the main dishes arrived just as the starters were being cleared. The menu promised grilled goat cheese and endive with the thresher shark; instead, I got papaya salsa. Cutlery was inelegantly replaced by cannibalizing silverware from an adjoining table. And the basket of dinner rolls was unworthy of the rest of the meal. But Lathrops clearly has a wonderful future--the reasonably priced, first-rate food certainly puts the place's shortcomings in perspective. If Lathrops ever gets its entire restaurant act together, it should be around a long, long time.

Golden Swan, 7500 East Doubletree Ranch Road (Hyatt Regency at Gainey Ranch), Scottsdale, 991-3388. Hours: Dinner, 6 to 10 p.m., seven nights a week.

In contrast to Lathrops, Golden Swan, the signature dining room at this gorgeous Hyatt resort, seems determined to play down the sophisticated angle. Guests wander in dressed in casual resort wear, even shorts. While the outside tables overlook lush grounds and a lagoon, the spare, gray-and-white inside area offers few hints of elegance. The dullest sort of Muzak filters over the speakers. The place is unintimidating and comfortable, but lacking an energetic buzz and "special occasion" spark. This is where you might come to celebrate shooting par on the Gainey Ranch links, not a romantic first anniversary or high-paying job promotion. Nor does the spark of culinary imagination ever quite burst into flame. The Southwestern-accented fare is deftly prepared, but without the soaring inventiveness to be found at comparable high-powered resort dining rooms, like the PiĀ¤on Grill or Top of the Rock. The breadbasket, though, certainly gets airborne. Crispy little loaves of fresh olive-walnut bread are good enough to make a meal of, especially after they're dipped into a fragrant bowl of olive oil, tomatoes and opal basil. Attentive servers make sure you have plenty of Evian to wash it down. With one exception, the appetizer list seems pretty derivative. That's hardly a crime. But I couldn't help comparing the fare to other versions I've had. Take the smoked-salmon quesadilla. This starter has become so familiar that it could conceivably replace the saguaro as the Arizona state symbol. Golden Swan's entry is no slouch, but it couldn't drive the memory of Vincent Guerithault's magnificent creation from my mind. Lobster tamales are another riff on a standard theme. The dish here, embellished with stir-fried jicama, corn and black beans, sports a mild, pleasant flavor. By comparison, at Top of the Rock, the lobster appetizer comes blended with boursin cheese schmeared between fried won-ton wafers. With Golden Swan's lobster tamale, I had a satisfying one-night stand; with Top of the Rock's lobster napoleon, I've developed a meaningful relationship. In the one instance where the kitchen did aim higher, it showed it could hit the target. Lumpia is a scrumptious egg roll filled with veggies and venison and moistened with a perky, wild-cherry relish. It's a wonderful arrangement of tastes and textures, good enough to crowd out all comparative thoughts. As far as main dishes, Golden Swan's are perfectly adequate, but not the stuff dreams are made of. Pork loin with pancetta and garlic mashed potatoes doesn't reflect a kitchen pushing the edge of the culinary envelope. It's a decent enough way to tamp down hunger pangs, but I expected more than ho-humness from a $19 platter. Shrimp and scallops in a tomato saffron broth also didn't push any hot buttons. Yes, the three shrimp were properly firm and meaty, the three scallops big and juicy. But I never got any of the taste explosions that would sear their memory in my mind. Thoughts of the herb-marinated range chicken will probably linger longest, though more for the stagecraft than consumption. A small bird, filled with pecan-corn-bread stuffing, is wrapped in parchment, sealed in clay and cooked. Then a server wheels it tableside, cracks it open and releases the steaming flavors. Perhaps the elaborate presentation pitched my expectations to an unreasonable level, but once the bird hit the plate, all the excitement was drained.

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